The phone's insanely high resolution 1280 x 800 pixel Super AMOLED HD display is easy on the eyes. Android does a good job of scaling UI elements so you won't need a magnifying glass to see things. After all, 1280 x 800 is the standard resolution for 10" Android tablets and select higher end 7" tablets. All those pixels make for supremely sharp text and plenty of detail when viewing high res photos and video. The display uses a Pentile matrix, but we didn't notice telltale color fringing or jaggy text thanks to the very high resolution. Super AMOLED displays tend to have a blue color cast, but Samsung clearly went with the best display panel they could design, and calibrated colors for nearly neutral tones. Our phone showed no banding when viewing blacks.
The Galaxy Note has a Wacom dual digitizer, and that means it has both capacitive multi-touch and an included S Pen that works with the active digitizer. It's much more precise and fluid for drawing vs. a capacitive stylus and it supports 256 levels of pressure sensitivity, which artists will love. Samsung ships the import version with several pen-aware apps and there are more in Samsung's download portal on the phone. The AT&T version ships with S Memo and the mini widget version, but it lacks S Planner and there are currently no pen-aware downloadable programs in Samsung's app store on the phone (this may change after the phone is released). If an app isn't pen-savvy, you're out of luck. Adobe Reader doesn't support use of the pen, for example, but there are third party PDF apps that do. Given the Note's size and pen, it actually feels like a real note pad replacement: nice. The pen stows in a silo located on the bottom edge of the phone. If you're looking for a pocket digital sketchbook or note pad, the Galaxy Note does the job perfectly. Our AT&T version's pen calibration wasn't good out of the box, but dragging the pen from edge to edge (side to side and top to bottom) repeatedly recalibrated the pen and it's spot-on now.
Performance and Horsepower
It's no secret that Samsung's dual core Exynos CPU is one of the fastest mobile CPUs available. The Galaxy Note currently has the highest clocked Exynos, and it runs at 1.4GHz (same as the Samsung Galaxy Tab 7 Plus tablet). The import Note benchmarks higher than all other Android smartphones we've tested so far. Keep in mind that the Note is pushing more pixels around than other phones, so it has more work to do in the graphics department for benchmarks. Here are the numbers:
International Samsung Galaxy Note (1.4GHz dual core Exynos):
Linpack multi-thread: 105
The AT&T version with the 1.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon dual core CPU with Adreno 220 graphics is the second fastest dual core on the block as of this writing. It's used in several LTE phones on AT&T and Verizon since it interfaces with Qualcomm's LTE chipset efficiently. Though not quite as fast on synthetic benchmarks, it's more than fast enough for any task including Adobe Flash playback, 1080p video playback and 3D gaming.
AT&T Samsung Galaxy Note (1.5GHz dual core Snapdragon S3):
Linpack multi-thread: 79
How about perceived performance? Both models feel very fast, though we noticed occasional micro-lag when navigating the home screen and launcher on the import version but not the AT&T version. The Note does run the latest version of Samsung's TouchWiz UI, which may weigh down the phone a bit, but we actually like what Samsung has done with TouchWiz, so we won't complain. The Galaxy Note has no trouble playing HD video including 720p to the internal panel and 1080p to the internal panel and an HD TV via MHL adapter (not included but you can pick one up at carrier stores for $20).
The smartphone runs Android OS 2.3 Gingerbread with a promised upgrade to Android OS 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich. It has a gig of RAM and 16 gigs of internal storage plus an available microSD card slot under the battery cover. Internal storage is partitioned with 1.7 gigs for app installation and 10.84 gigs for data (the rest is used by the OS).
Phone and Data
The AT&T Samsung Galaxy Note is quad band GSM with triband 3G and 4G HSPA+ 21Mbps (850/1900/2100MHz). It has 4G LTE on AT&T's 700MHz band.
The import Samsung Galaxy Note is sold in the US unlocked for GSM networks. It's a quad band GSM world phone. It has 3G and 4G HSPA+ 21Mbps on the 850/900/1900/2100MHz bands, and that means you'll get 3G/4G HSPA+ overseas and on AT&T but not T-Mobile in the US.
The AT&T Samsung Galaxy Note averaged 29Mbps down and 11Mbps up with a middling 2-3 bar signal on LTE 4G. We've seen it go as high as 38Mbps down and 16Mbps up with a stronger signal. That's faster than many folks' home broadband connections, and the AT&T Note makes a wonderful mobile hotspot for your tablet or laptop. The hotspot feature is included with 4 and 5 gig/month data plans.
The import Note's download speeds on AT&T averaged 6Mbps down and 1.3Mbps up according to the Speedtest.net app, which is average for HSPA+ AT&T phones in our area. Our AT&T Note managed the same on HSPA+. That's plenty fast for responsive web page downloads and app downloads from the Android Market.
As a voice phone, both versions of the Galaxy Note are wonderful. It has very clear incoming and outgoing voice and better than average volume. Samsung's Galaxy S II phones have had very good voice overall, and the Note takes it up a notch better vs. the Galaxy S II and Samsung Galaxy S II Skyrocket on AT&T. Both phones likewise sounded very good with a variety of Bluetooth headsets like the Jawbone 2 and Motorola H730 as well as our BMW built-in Bluetooth. The Note has Bluetooth 3.0 +HS.
Camera and Multimedia
The Samsung Note uses the same 8 megapixel rear main camera module as the Galaxy S II phones, and it takes colorful and sharp photos as well as pleasing though not groundbreaking 1080p video. The camera is prone to overexposure in high contrast brightly lit outdoor settings, just as with the S II, but otherwise we have no complaints. Indoor photos show relatively little noise, and the flash doesn't overexpose subjects at close range. 1080p video looks smooth at 30fps, and has a good amount of detail and color saturation, though there's some motion blockiness typical of camera phones. The 2 megapixel front camera worked well with Google Talk video chat and Skype in our tests. We looked clear with good illumination over HSPA+ and WiFi.
For such a large phone, you'd think there would be room for some serious stereo speakers. Instead the Note has a decent mono speaker that's decently loud but not louder than the pack of 4.5" and above smartphones. Sound is reasonably full but you'll want to plug in a set of headphones for best audio quality, or stream to Bluetooth speakers. The phone has a 3.5mm jack and an FM radio with RDS.
WiFi and Connections
The Samsung has WiFi 802.11b/g/n with average reception for a smartphone and it has Bluetooth 3.0 + HS. You get Kies Air syncing over WiFi and WiFi Direct as well as DLNA for streaming media. HDMI out comes via an optional MHL adapter that plugs into the phone's micro USB port. The phone can mount as a standard mass storage device (thankfully for Mac users), and it can do Samsung's Kies syncing over USB and WiFi to Windows machines plus MTP. Samsung says the micro USB port supports USB Host (with a USB host cable, aka USB OTG cable). We checked with our trusty USB host cable, but couldn't get this feature to work with flash drives, hard drives, keyboards or mice.
The phone has a GPS with A-GPS and Glonass (the Russian GPS satellite system), and it ships with the usual Google Maps, Navigation and Places (the AT&T version also comes with AT&T Navigator and Family Maps). The Note quickly found our location indoors and proved a trustworthy companion for in-car navigation. The Galaxy Note has a digital compass.
The international version comes with more pen-aware apps and Samsung's download portal to grab more. So far, the AT&T version gets the game Crayon Physics and S Planner plus the mini version of S Planner, and that's it. We hope Samsung will provide additional downloads for the AT&T version.
Both versions ship with Samsung's Media Hub (movies and TV shows for rental and purchase), Social Hub social networking, Polaris Office full version, Samsung task and file manager, AllShare DLNA, Voice Recorder and Mini Diary. All the standard Google Android apps are on board such as Maps, Navigation, YouTube, Gmail, Books, Music, News & Weather, the Webkit web browser with Adobe Flash and the Android Market.
AT&T includes their usual small army of apps with the US version of the Galaxy Note. These include AT&T Navigator and Family Maps, YPMobile, AT&T Code Scanner, Featured Apps, AT&T Ready2Go, Amazon Kindle, AT&T Live TV, mSpot Movies (streaming and downloadable movie service with somewhat high prices) and Qik Lite for video chat (we prefer Skype, which works well).
You're thinking: big screen, really fast CPU and fast data: the battery life must stink. But battery life on LTE with the AT&T version is actually similar to AT&T's other LTE phones like the Skyrocket. I make it through the day on a charge with moderate use that includes email, a few short calls, web browsing and watching a few YouTube videos. It helps that the phone has a large 2500 mAh Lithium Ion battery, which is quite large for a standard battery. The HSPA+ version lasts longer since it's not as power hungry as LTE, and I routinely manage 1.5 days on a charge. If you're not in an LTE coverage area, expect HSPA+ runtimes.
Samsung does go a little overboard with the display power management, and there's an option that's turned on by default that adapts backlight to colors currently displayed (all Galaxy S II smartphones have this feature). That means light and white backgrounds trigger power management to further dim the display and web pages can look a bit too dim. Likewise, the ambient light sets the display too dim for my tastes, rendering it useless indoors. It does do a good job of increasing brightness to combat outdoor light, however.
The international Samsung Galaxy Note was the best Android smartphone of 2011 and the AT&T version makes for the best of early 2012 if you're looking for a pocket computer more than a voice phone. It has a superb display running at an extremely high resolution, a very useful Wacom digitizer with pen for pressure sensitive writing and drawing and a very fast dual core CPU. It's thin, attractive and though very large, can still fit in a pocket as well as medium to large hands.
Voice quality for calls is excellent whether using the handset or a Bluetooth headset, data speeds are very good and the GPS is solid. There's really nothing we don't like about the phone except the size, which is a bit awkward and is unmanageable for those with smaller hands.
Websites: www.samsung.com, wireless.att.com
Price: $299 with contract, $649 without contract for AT&T Samsung Galaxy Note.
$650 to $750 for the unlocked GSM version from importers.